Supporting The Homeless Troops
Once or twice a week, I am visited at work by a client who stops in to get a cup of coffee and check in with me about how he is doing. Nick, as I’ll call him here, is a 54 year-old homeless Vietnam Veteran who has been living outside for several years. His valuables all fit into a brown backpack that I gave him two months ago and the sleeping bag and tarp he uses to protect himself against the elements every night get stashed in a plastic bag in the bushes or hidden in dry spots in vacant buildings. Nick once had his own business and a family he adored, but the untreated PTSD he suffers from, as a result of serving as a combat troop in Vietnam, led him to self medicate with alcohol and landed him homeless. He, like many of the homeless veterans I work with, chooses to sleep outdoors, away from the loudness and chaos of the overcrowded shelters because it is “too much to take.” It has taken Nick all of these years since he returned home from Vietnam to finally ask for help.
Many of the newer veterans, who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, could easily be heading down the same path. Most that I have spoken with are suffering from severe PTSD and anger at the military for the plethora of broken promises that were used to convince them to join in the first place. One young veteran that I speak with on a regular basis served three tours in Iraq, only to come home to limited employment offers and no affordable housing options. Another, who has extensive medical training, witnessed so much bloodshed as a medic in Iraq that his PTSD has made it impossible for him to ever work in the medical field again. And still another young man who served in Afghanistan is suffering from such severe anxiety attacks and PTSD that he drinks himself to sleep every night just so he can find some peace.
Most of the returning troops that I speak with have little idea of what benefits they are eligible for and many more have too much pride, shame or depression to even seek the help they deserve. There are also a growing number of young veterans who have been dismissed from the military because of “panic attacks” or “psychological disorders” and have been given an Other Than Honorable Discharge, which excludes them from many of the veterans benefits or services that they, too deserve. They are left feeling overwhelmingly frustrated, angry and wondering why it is that their grandfathers were given jobs and support upon return from World War II and they are given nothing.
It is so easy to get overwhelmed when listening to first hand accounts of what the never-ending “Global War on Terror” is doing to the world and how it is affecting the lives of so many people here in our community. I constantly have to remind myself that that there is some hope. The fact that many of these returning troops are already asking for help is a big sign that the healing and support they need will shift things into a more positive gear. Also, groups like Iraq Veterans Against The War (www.ivaw.org) are providing a forum and a safe space for many of these returning troops to discuss their experiences and to support each other through the difficult task of returning home. Hopefully with the support of the anti-war movement, these young men won’t wait 30 years to speak out and seek help like my dear new friend Nick and a growing number of men like him.